The Final Countdown: A look at the Championship run-in as Ipswich Town bid to make the play-offs
- Credit: Picture: Steve Waller
Ipswich Town are four points adrift of the Championship play-off places with eight games to go. Chief football writer Stuart Watson takes a look at the form and fixtures of the Blues’ main top-six rivals.
Position: 5th - Points: 64 - Goal difference: +16
The Rams are five points clear of seventh-placed Cardiff and are 1/10 to secure a play-off place, but last season’s dramatic late collapse must be in the back of their minds.
Around this time last year it all went horribly wrong for the east Midlands outfit as they claimed just 12 points from a possible 39 to go from automatic promotion contenders to finishing eighth on the final day.
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Steve McClaren left for Newcastle, in came former Real Madrid coach Paul Clement and millions were lavished in the transfer market. When Clement was sacked at the start of February, owner Mel Morris insisted it was down to the team needing to play ‘the Derby way’ and that there was no pressure to get promoted. He was kidding no-one.
Academy manager Darren Wassall is in caretaker charge and his record so far reads W4 D1 L3. The capitulation at Rotherham a fortnight ago, when the hosts scored three times in the last seven minutes to salvage a 3-3 draw, suggested the pressure may once again be getting to them.
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Harry Redknapp was promptly brought in as a ‘football advisor’ and a hard-fought 1-0 win against bitter rivals Nottingham Forest provided a time-boost ahead of the international break. Another positive is the imminent return to action of talented midfielder Will Hughes following a long-term knee injury.
Their next two games – at Cardiff and at home to Hull – look tricky. Win those and they could be back in automatic promotion contention. Lose them both and the nerves could kick in big time.
Key man: George Thorne – After his debut season at the iPro Stadium was obliterated by a knee injury, the all-action midfielder has shown just why a fee of around £3m was paid to West Brom for his services. His statistics against Forest recently – be it tackles, interceptions, passes and ground covered – were magnificent. Drives the team on.
Recent form: L-W-L-D-W
Remaining fixtures: Cardiff (a), Hull (h), Bolton (h), Charlton (a), Bristol City (a), Sheffield Weds (h), Brighton (a), Ipswich (h)
Odds of a top-six finish: 1/10
Position: 6th - Points: 62 - Goal difference +20
The feelgood factor at the south Yorkshire club is gathering momentum. Portuguese head coach Carlos Carvalhal promised supporters attractive, attack-minded football last summer and he has delivered.
The Owls have just recorded back-to-back 3-0 wins – at Forest and away to Charlton – with six different players on the scoresheet. Only league-leaders Burnley have scored more than their 56 goals in the league.
They have shown they can mix up their approach too though, having dug in for goalless draws against Hull and Brighton recently.
Crowds in excess of 30,000 are packing into Hillsbrough to roar their team on and the club’s new Thai owners showed ambition when financing the January loan additions of experienced Premier League duo Gary Hooper and Aiden McGeady.
“I believe we can play better week-by-week,” said Carvalhal. “We have confidence in how we win, lose or draw. Even if we lose but play with our style, we have our confidence.
“It is very easy for me to rotate and the players understand. Not every (opposition) team has the same characteristics. You have to have a Plan B, C and D.”
Key man: Barry Bannan – The Scottish international midfielder has proved a huge hit since arriving from Crystal Palace last summer. His energy, ability to create space and to pick out a decisive pass was missed against Charlton recently and now the Owls have to cope without him for another two matches as he serves the remainder of a suspension.
Recent form: D-L-D-W-W
Remaining fixtures: Huddersfield (a), Blackburn (h), Bristol City (a), Ipswich (h), MK Dons (h), Derby (a), Cardiff (h), Wolves (a)
Odds of a top-six finish: 4/11
Position: 7th - Points: 59 - Goal difference +8
There was a real doom-and-gloom feeling surrounding the south Wales club not so long ago with owner Vincent Tan having made himself unpopular with the decision to change the home kit to red and appointing Russell Slade as manager from League One club Leyton Orient.
Crowds at the Cardiff City Stadium plummeted and Slade’s so-called negative brand of football did little to attract people back.
Slowly-but-surely though he has won over the critics.
A bit like Ipswich last season, the hard-working and organised Bluebirds have flown under the radar throughout but find themselves in with a decent chance of plodding over the line if others falter.
Question marks remain over squad depth and attacking quality. Anthony Pilkington has done superbly as a makeshift lone striker, but there is little back-up.
Attacking midfielders Tom Lawrence, Craig Noone and Sammy Ameobi are all game-changers on their day, but are very inconsistent.
Key man: Peter Whittingham – Closing in on 400 appearances for the club, the 31-year-old midfielder always adds a touch of class to proceedings. Currently playing as a narrow left-midfielder he is always a threat with his deliveries from open play and set-pieces.
Recent form: W-W-L-W-D
Remaining fixtures: Burnley (a), Fulham (a), QPR (h), Brentford (a), Bolton (h), Sheff Weds (a), Birmingham (h).
Odds of a top-six finish: 9/2
Position: 8th - Points: 58 - Goal difference +2
From the outside looking in, Ipswich are only four points adrift and have claimed more points in their last six than Middlesbrough, Hull, Sheffield Wednesday and Birmingham.
Those who have watched them week-in, week-out are right to question some dire displays and wonder where they are going to get five more wins from though.
Town rode their luck in the wins against Huddersfield, Forest and Blackburn, conceded a last-gasp leveller at Bolton and were devoid of creative spark in 1-0 losses against Cardiff and Rotherham.
He has not been helped by injuries to the talented trio of David McGoldrick, Teddy Bishop and Ryan Fraser, but the general consensus is that manager Mick McCarthy has shown too much respect to the opposition in home games with his team selections.
Home games against Charlton, Brentford and MK Dons look winnable.
Time will tell if the shackles are removed for those matches.
Recent form: W-D-L-W-L
Key man: David McGoldrick – How Town have missed the talented forward’s clever movement, silky footwork and ability to create space for others this season. Without him there has been little link-up play between midfield and up front. He produced an encouraging display in a long-awaited injury comeback for the Under-21s last Monday night and could provide a sprinkling of stardust for the run-in.
Remaining fixtures: Wolves (a), Charlton (h), Brentford (h), Sheff Weds (a), Fulham (h), Middlesbrough (a), MK Dons (h), Derby (a)
Odds of a top-six finish: 6/1
Position: 9th - Points: 56 - Goal difference: +6
What had started to look like a play-off charge is now becoming more of a jog. Gary Rowett’s men have claimed just two points from their last three games. They are now six points adrift, though they do have a game in hand.
Against Ipswich back in January everything they hit turned to goals in a 3-0 victory at St Andrew’s. Since then they have scored just four times in nine games.
Why the goal drought? Striker Clayton Donaldson, a bit like Daryl Murphy at Town, hasn’t quite reproduced the season of his career. The pace of Demarai Gray has been badly missed since his January sale to Bournemouth too, especially in away games when counter-attacking is the order of the day.
The Midlands outfit are currently in Marbella, Spain undertaking some warm weather training in the hope it will freshen them up for a late play-off push. Already they are talking down their chances.
“When I said at the start of the season ‘if we can be in touching distance of the play-offs’, genuinely I was talking about five/six points, somewhere where there is still something to play for,” said Rowett.
“We are very much still in the mix, which I think is a fantastic achievement.”
Key man: David Cotterill – The Welsh international winger provided nine goals and several assists in 2014/15, but has endured a frustrating stop-start season disrupted by injuries this time around. He’s started the last five games though and will be desperate to impress ahead of this summer’s European Championships.
Recent form: L-W-L-D-D
Remaining fixtures: Charlton (a), Brighton (h), Reading (a), Leeds (h), Burnley (h), Preston (h), Huddersfield (a), Middlesbrough (h), Cardiff (a)
Odds of a top-six finish: 12/1